Is that company a ‘supervillain’ OR is there more to the story?

Identifying the villain in a story can feel good. Instantly you know who to blame – you know where to direct your anger or frustration. You no longer have to search for the “bad guy” and there is a feeling of unity as the collective energy focuses on defeating or punishing the villain. But this isn’t Hollywood. We live in the real world and it’s much more complicated.

Consider some of the many companies that are seen as villains. Now choose one that particularly frustrates you or that makes you downright angry. BUT wait, before you bathe in the comforting waters of righteous indignation towards your company of choice, take a deep breath and consider how the company may have evolved – it didn’t suddenly become a “supervillain”. Here are three factors that may have led the company down this path:

* Inertia
* The Mantra of Shareholder Value Maximization
* The Economic Model of Capitalism Itself

How Did the Company Evolve?

Imagine 100ish years ago…a company found a way to power a new world with a gooey black substance that was easily transported and that was relatively abundant.

Imagine 50 years ago…a company was created to provide tasty “fast food” to an increasingly mobile society.

Imagine 25 years ago…a company found a way to increase the yields of our crops to feed a growing and hungry planet.

These are admirable contributions to our collective comfort – would companies like these be considered villains?

WAIT. Before you answer, let’s reflect on the company for a moment.

Has the company always been in the same business? Have they been forced to adapt to a changing marketplace or business norms?  Were they skilled at adapting? Have they been innovative? Are their shareholders happy with their performance?

Over the years, did anyone ever ask if their product was ethical or generally made the world a better place? Are their employees happy and proud to work for this company? What about the people and communities who are directly or indirectly part of their supply chain – are their lives enhanced by being associated with this company? Has the word “shared value” ever been mentioned at a boardroom meeting? 

Within the Law

Now, let’s assume that the company is operating within the law; it is skilled at driving down costs and it’s very profitable. Environmental and social impacts, while known to the company, are not on the radar of its customers and besides, these externalities are considered to be “business norms”. Government regulations have not kept pace. The company has a powerful marketing and PR machine that has slowly over the years convinced the public that this product is necessary for “the good life” and furthermore, they have become so skilled at hiding or normalizing the environmental and social impacts that we hardly notice it? Would a company like this be considered to be a villain?

The Mantra of Shareholder Value Maximization

Over the past few decades the idea of shareholder value maximization has infiltrated our collective psyche, while at the same time, many regulations have not kept pace. Companies talk with a laser focus on increasing earnings and often there is little focus on the externalities that are caused in the process. Again, government has not kept up – in fact, it often seems as if government makes rules that specifically clear a path for companies to maximize earnings at the expense of its citizens. How has this happened? Who is responsible? Who is the villain in this scenario?

Can you blame a scorpion for stinging? Can you blame a cheetah for running? Can you blame a company for living up to its mandate and trying to maximize shareholder returns?

The Economic Model of Capitalism Itself

Capitalism has many benefits and for many years it wasn’t widely questioned as to whether there was a better way to run an economy. It had become the system of choice for many countries around the world and as such, governments would tie their success to the economy’s success. The measurement tool was GDP and it was fed to us as the metric that illustrated our prosperity. For a while, most of us were riding this wave and it felt as if things were generally going in the right direction.

There are of course other metrics that delve into societal wellness and wellbeing but these metrics were often the secondary story and if they were not rising or perhaps even falling, it was rationalized as a minor byproduct of capitalism’s great ability to create wealth.

…if the secondary metrics of societal wellness and wellbeing were not rising or perhaps even falling, it was rationalized as a minor byproduct of capitalism’s great ability to create wealth.

Sometimes studies would be convened about some of the ills of society but for the most part, the voices that questioned our capitalist model were drowned out and/or relegated to academia.

The official story of capitalism went like this:

Economic growth measured by GDP is how we measure prosperity. The private sector is most skilled at building on this metric. With less regulation, the private sector could create even more wealth. That wealth would trickle down to all of society and we would all become more prosperous. AND don’t forget this juicy part of the story; the wealthy provide the capital to grease the wheels, so it’s important to reduce any tax burden on the wealthy so that they can put their money to work for our collective benefit.

Who is the villain? Where does the blame lie?

Fighting for a Better World

There’s a lot more going on than simply labelling a company as a villain. Big companies don’t evolve overnight and they won’t change to becoming sustainability leaders overnight. It’s a process that requires a shift in business culture, societal demands and government regulations.

Sadly until there is a catastrophic event, the change is likely to be slower than what we need for greater social, societal and environmental wellness. But until then, we must continue to push for the changes that we desire.

When protesters yell and scream and boycott a company they’re often upset at a symptom of a broken system. So that begs the question – where should we direct our energy to drive change for a better world?
Brad Zarnett is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). He is considered to be a “tribal” leader and a social influencer in the sustainability movement.